What was so special about January 1973? Robenalt (The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War, 2009, etc.) makes the bold claim that this month signaled a turning point in the history of American political life.
The author focuses on the convergence of three major events: the first Watergate trial, which led to the unraveling of the Nixon Administration; the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, intended to end the war in Vietnam; and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions to protect a woman’s right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. His persuasive if somewhat self-evident argument, mostly confined to the book’s introduction and epilogue, is that one vision of America, based on Cold War hubris abroad and the welfare state at home, died in the first month of 1973. In its place arose the “Nixon counterrevolution,” giving new shape to conservatism as a political force and poisoning the body politic with new strains of mean-spiritedness and (after Roe v. Wade) religious mania. For the bulk of the book, however, Robenalt keeps his argument subdued and offers a straightforward account of the month’s events, as though he were presenting evidence in a case. He makes ample use of the Nixon tapes, diaries, and other primary sources, but the results can be overly detailed, even tediously quotidian. Things get interesting, though, when Nixon takes the stage, playing the central role. Fresh off his re-election, Nixon was by turns erratic, devious, repellent, sympathetic, lonesome, and drunk. But he is always fascinating in Robenalt’s unvarnished portrait of a flawed leader grappling with momentous events and heading, ultimately, toward ruin. This immersive microhistory offers macro conclusions about American politics.
A richly sourced and meticulous—albeit Nixon-centric—case for why January 1973 matters.